Opinion | Mike Littwin: Johnston says he couldn’t find a positive way to answer why-not-Hick question

Mike Littwin
Fair and Unbalanced
Mike Littwin
The Colorado Independent

The only thing that surprises me about Mike Johnston’s decision to leave the U.S. Senate race is that it happened so quickly.

The pool is now open for which candidate drops out next. I didn’t think Johnston would necessarily be the first in the 12-person field, but I’m sure he won’t be the last. And it probably won’t be long before the next Dem drops.

Johnston’s official explanation is on point. He says to beat someone like John Hickenlooper, with near-universal name recognition, in a race that Democrats are desperate to win, the question any Democratic candidate must inevitably answer becomes: “Why not Hickenlooper?”

Hickenlooper has the name recognition. He has, or will have, the money. He’s got the party support. He may not, to risk understating the case, be totally in step with Colorado progressives and he did say he wasn’t cut out to be a senator, but he is the only candidate in the Democratic race with statewide victories on his resume. Hickenlooper may have bombed in his presidential bid, but nearly every Democrat in Colorado has voted for him at some point.

Answering the why-not question, Johnston says, means a campaign focused on reducing Hickenlooper’s advantages, which, he says, means going negative, which, he further says, he didn’t want to do. And though Johnston has shown himself to be a prolific fundraiser and, as of now, easily leads that race in the Senate field, it’s unlikely he or anyone else would be able to match Hickenlooper’s resources. (Don’t be fooled by Hick’s embarrassing presidential fundraising. A Colorado Senate race is a whole different matter.)

But the unofficial explanation for Johnston’s departure is also on point. Johnston, who lost in the governor’s primary last year, can’t afford politically to lose two high-profile statewide races in two years. And beating Hickenlooper, he knows, is a long shot. In an effort to show he could compete, he released a poll showing that, like Hickenlooper, he could beat Cory Gardner. But that poll apparently didn’t persuade even Johnston that he would beat Hickenlooper.

That’s the message here. If Johnston, a top-tier candidate, recognized almost immediately that he had little chance of winning, what does that say for everyone else?

“For everyone in the race,” Johnston says, “beating Gardner is the primary focus.” Looking at the possibility of the race going negative and hurting the frontrunner, Johnston says, “I just couldn’t take that chance.”

Johnston says he doesn’t know what he’ll do next. He said it was the first question his 7-year-old son asked him. What he did say — and this is a safe bet — was that he probably isn’t done with politics.

I talked to many of the leading remaining candidates Tuesday to see what they might do next. No one is dropping out — yet. And none of them seemed too worried about a negative race.

The good news is that Johnston says no one from the Democratic establishment, which has come down unabashedly — and lead-footedly — on Hick’s side, tried to force him out of the race. In fact, two of the better-known candidates told me that Johnston’s departure in a divided field would probably benefit them.

Andrew Romanoff has a slightly different view than Johnston. He says there’s plenty of time to show where the candidates part ways on issues, and that discussing issue differences does not mean going negative.

“Personal attacks are off limits,” he adds. “As I said about Cory Gardner, I’m not going to attack his patriotism. I know he loves America. But we have different views on the issues facing the country. When I’m talking to people … they want to know what I’m going to do about climate change, about health care, about the border and immigration, about guns, about income inequality. We’re trying to run a campaign that looks just the opposite of Donald Trump — talking about issues and not tweeting attacks.”

Trump is currently tweeting attacks on the mayor of London, who made fun of Trump’s golf-course-based view of Hurricane Dorian. It’s not hard to be the opposite of that.

But people do remember the ugly 2010 Senate primary race between Michael Bennet and Romanoff, and there are still hard feelings on both sides. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t think negative campaigning will work in this race. It would just send Hickenlooper to another fully-clothed (we hope) shower. And I doubt that many of the activist groups that would possibly oppose Hickenlooper will disagree with Johnston’s assessment — that any risk of helping Gardner is a risk too far.

No one expects Colorado to be a swing state this time — if Trump, who lost the state by five points in 2016, carries Colorado in 2020, you can pencil in a Trump rout — but the Senate race will be among the most watched, and among the most expensive, in the country. If Cory Gardner holds his seat, the Democrats have to little to no chance of taking the Senate.

That’s why the national Democrats are betting on Hickenlooper. He’s the safe choice. The job for the remaining candidates — including Romanoff, Alice Madden, Dan Baer, Joe Walsh, Angela Williams and the rest — is to persuade Democratic voters that in 2020, in the era of Trump, they’d also be a safe choice. That’s hardly out of the question. But what we know is that Mike Johnston, a leading contender, didn’t see a safe way to make that case.

Mike Littwin writes the biweekly column “Fair and Unbalanced” for The Colorado Independent. He previously worked at The Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News, Los Angeles Times and Baltimore Sun. Contact him at

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